Williams Students Online (WSO) shut down its web forums this past week in response to a flood of complaints from the College community. Students were outraged and threatened by the content posted in the forums, particularly the “Gays Suck” and “Gays on Campus” threads. Though no changes are definite, WSO is now strongly considering using a user authentication system to limit access to the forums. The forums are expected to return as early as January.
WSO, an independent student organization at the College, hosts online forums whose topics have traditionally been inoffensive, but recently became a hotbed for controversy because of offensive threads. The forums were typically used for finding rides off-campus, inquiring about classes, advertising and general discussion.
Recently, however, three controversial threads appeared in the general discussion forum. The first of these threads appeared a few weeks ago in response to the Queer Student Union’s (QSU) chalkings during Coming Out Days. Because of its highly offensive content, the Dean’s Office subsequently asked WSO to remove the thread. It was soon replaced with a similar thread entitled “Gays Suck.” The hateful attitudes expressed in the chalkings thread persisted in this new one.
Richard C. Kelley, Campus Activities Coordinator, says “I don’t think that the ‘Gays Suck’ forum that existed on WSO about a month ago was productive or appropriate. If it was simply a forum for people to discuss whether they feel that homosexuality is moral or legal then that would have been okay . . . But, the forum went beyond that. The queer students that I talked to actually said that they felt threatened and unsafe at Williams based on what they read.”
Students were also outraged by the posts in the “Gays on Campus” thread. This thread contained the names of gay people in the Williams community. In some cases, the names posted belonged to people who had not hitherto been open about their sexual orientations.
Many feel that it was the anonymity and unrestricted nature of the WSO forums which gave rise to these abusive threads. None of the forums were monitored or restricted in any way. “We are an entirely student-run organization, and cannot effectively moderate forums,” said Jacob Eisler, WSO secretary. Although it was possible to trace the posts to specific computers, WSO staff did not feel it was appropriate to trace the offensive posts since the forums were intended to be anonymous.
Julia K. Brown ’05, political coordinator of the QSU, chose to bring some of the anonymous opinions expressed in the ‘Gays Suck’ thread to the attention of the campus at large. She printed out many of the inflammatory remarks and posted them in Baxter. Students could respond directly to the comments on the board, and it became filled with dialogue over the course of the past week. Brown says she set up the board to spark conversation and awareness on campus about sensitive issues that are often avoided.
“I felt that it was important that all members of the Williams community be able to see and respond to what had been written,” Brown said. “It wasn’t meant as a ‘boo hoo, look at all the horrible things they’re saying about us,’ it was simply meant to raise awareness of the wide variety of people’s opinion on this campus.”
“I feel that the response to it was very positive. Reading the things people wrote on the board was for the most part very encouraging. I felt that if I got even one person to realize that there are hateful things going on at Williams that I had done my job,” she said.
To deal with the offensive anonymous postings on the forums, WSO staff removed all of the forums from the site and plan to make major structural changes. Though the exact plans have not yet been articulated, one of the most likely alterations will be limiting access to the forums to Williams students through the use of user authentication logins. The staff believes that regulating access is easier than attempting to moderate the system in place. Since only a small number of students are involved with WSO, moderating the forums exceeds their resources.
However, there is a possibility that separate anonymous forums that are accessible off-campus will coexist with a login forum. Eisler, pointing out one of the merits of an unrestricted system, believes that prospective students use the forums to learn about the College and speak with students. No matter what the decision,it is unlikely the forums will be reinstated before January.
WSO attributes this lengthy delay to the extensive time and technical complexity required for setting up a user-authentication system. Many applaud the decision to remove the forums.
“I am very pleased that WSO finally decided to take down their forums. This decision was long overdue as the content of the forums reflected horribly on Williams and our student body,” Drew Newman ’04 said.
Some Williams students question WSO’s actions, concerned that it will hinder much needed discussion. Annie Moore ’04, president of the QSU, suggested that removing the forums negates the issues they raised: “I think that the content of the forums that have been deleted should not be erased as if they never existed,” she said.
“[W]hile I was against the content of the forum, I felt that removing it from WSO was quite possibly the worst response to it….It stifles the dialogue that this campus desperately needs,” Brown said.
“There is an enormous fear of saying anything of substance here. While personally I believe in posting under my real name because I feel the need to take responsibility for what I say, I think that the anonymity of discussion forums can allow people to talk about things that they wouldn’t otherwise, and air feelings that it is essential that we know about so that we can address them,” Brown said.